With around a quarter of the world’s population living on less than US$3.20 per day, many people cannot afford a full canister of gas for cooking. In Kenya, a full 13kg gas canister, also known as a cylinder, on the formal market costs about 6,950 KES (around US$60). This is an expensive item for many families, which puts many customers off; impeding access to the health, environmental, and economic benefits of clean cooking.
A new study from Kenya has shown that the economic impacts of COVID-19 have only exacerbated these financial barriers. The study found that 25% of people cooking with full-sized liquified petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders in an informal settlement in Nairobi reverted to cooking with polluting fuels during the pandemic, with 95% of households reporting reductions in household income during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Our findings were worrying,” said Matt Shupler, a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with the University of Liverpool, which published the study. “Many people we surveyed had lost their jobs and could not afford clean cooking fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas, which emit lower levels of air pollution. They switched to cheaper – but higher pollution risk – cooking fuels, such as wood and kerosene.”
At the same time, a separate study that took place during Kenya’s lockdown revealed high demand for LPG among households purchasing cooking fuel on a “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO) basis. Thanks to a smart meter placed on the gas cylinder, these households could pay for LPG in small installments via mobile banking, instead of facing large up-front costs.
In this PAYGO study, researchers analyzed smart meter data from 426 PAYGO LPG customers living in an informal urban settlement in Nairobi, Kenya before, during, and after the COVID-19 lockdown.1 Using this data, they examined how the lockdown — and subsequent reductions in household income — impacted LPG spending and cooking behaviors. Stove use monitoring data from 23 households using non-PAYGO LPG in Eldoret, Kenya were used as a comparison group to the households using PAYGO LPG.
Despite the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic, the researchers observed an increase in PAYGO LPG consumption among customers (from 0.97kg per capita per month before lockdown to 1.22 kg per capita per month after lockdown) and a 60% increase in frequency of cooking events. Customers attributed their increased PAYGO LPG consumption to school closures, which resulted in children eating more meals at home.
Additionally, 95% of the 301 active customers continued using PAYGO LPG during the lockdown. By contrast, one-third of non-PAYGO-using households reported reducing their LPG consumption from 17 days to 4 days per month, a 75% decrease.
Of course, while PAYGO LPG represents a promising solution for expanding clean cooking access, it may not meet the needs of customers in all settings.
One limitation of the PAYGO research is that the PAYGO LPG users included in the study live in an informal urban settlement. As such, it’s unclear if the study’s results would hold up in settings with reduced urbanicity, where LPG supply chain, infrastructure, and socioeconomic characteristics differ. Furthermore, the research did not record data on stove stacking and the use of secondary fuels. Lastly, with only 23 households in the counterfactual group compared with 301 customers in the PAYGO LPG group, it is difficult to make firm conclusions.
Nevertheless, these collective findings demonstrate that households using standard LPG technologies may reduce their use of the fuel during periods of reduced income, but that PAYGO approaches can enable households to maintain, or even increase, their use of clean cooking solutions.
1 These data were collected from PayGo Energy, an early innovator in Pay-as-you-go smart meters for liquified petroleum gas and supply chain software.